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House, Senate head toward lawsuit over governor's legislative funding veto

By Jonathan Avise
House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speak with the media after a June 2 meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Commission, which voted 7-2 to retain outside counsel in litigation arising from the governor’s line-item vetoes of funding for the House and Senate. Photo by Paul Battaglia

See you in court.

That was the message Friday from Republican House and Senate leadership in approving a resolution to seek outside legal representation in an effort to restore funding for the Legislature that Gov. Mark Dayton line-item vetoed May 30 as part of an ongoing standoff.

During a meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Commission, lawmakers OK’d the measure on a 7-2 party-line vote to allow the Legislature to hire an outside attorney in preparation for potential litigation over the de-funding.

Earlier this week Dayton signed into law nine budget bills that make up Minnesota’s $46 billion, two-year budget. But he struck $130 million in funding for the Legislature for the fiscal biennium that begins July 1 in an effort to bring lawmakers back to renegotiate a handful of items included in the legislation the governor doesn’t like.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) have called the governor’s move unconstitutional and said Friday that suing to overturn his maneuver is the only way forward.

“I’m not going to sit down with the governor to renegotiate something he has already agreed to,” Daudt said.

The LCC resolution allows the Legislature to hire the law firm of Kelley, Wolter & Scott to represent the House and Senate in litigation related to the defunding. Daudt and Gazelka said the Minneapolis attorneys were chosen from a list of around a half-dozen suggested by nonpartisan legislative staff and that leadership would seek a flat fee, rather than hourly billing, arrangement.

“For us, this isn’t a case of Republicans vs. Democrats, but the governor vs. the House and Senate,” Gazelka said.


Casting blame

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle sought to cast blame on the other for causing the funding veto showdown.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman comments during the June 2 meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Commission. Photo by Paul Battaglia

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) called it premature to move forward with a lawsuit when Dayton and Republican leaders have not yet discussed Tuesday’s line-item veto with one another. She said Republicans were simply caught in a game they, too, were playing — that is, tying state agency funding to policy measures they knew the governor did not like. 

“I just find it ironic that you were willing to put the paychecks of 1,300 employees of the Minnesota Department of Revenue at risk, but you’re gravely offended that the paychecks of 500 legislative employees are on the line,” Hortman said. “It’s a tactic you brought into the legislative negotiations and now it’s been turned on you.”

Daudt and Gazelka disagreed. They said the issues raised by the governor were already agreed to in negotiations during the end of the regular session and a special session that wrapped up last week.

“(Dayton) had his constitutional right to veto those bills if he did not like the language in them,” Daudt said. “He did not. He signed them.”


What does Dayton want?

Dayton asserts he exercised his constitutional right to eliminate the funding for the Legislature’s two-year budget in order to spur lawmakers to remove five provisions from bills he signed into law Tuesday. If lawmakers agree to that, Dayton said he would call a special session during which the Legislature could restore its funding.

The items Dayton wants changed are:

  • elimination of tax breaks on tobacco products;
  • cancellation of changes to the state’s estate tax that would impact Minnesotans who die with estates valued at more than $2 million, or farmers and businesses valued at more than $5 million;
  • elimination of a freeze on statewide business property taxes;
  • removal a measure that explicitly prevents undocumented Minnesota residents from obtaining a state driver’s license; and
  • amending changes to the state’s teacher licensure system that were included in the omnibus education finance bill. 

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